“Rich in antioxidants!” “Contains Antioxidants!” Anyone who’s read a label in the past 10 years has probably seen these proclamations slapped on everything from bottles of green tea, orange juice and multivitamins to packages of blueberries and loaves of whole wheat bread. Complicating matters further, topical lotions and creams have also begun touting their antioxidant content while claiming possible anti-aging effects.
So what’s the truth? Do these products—which claim to fight off aging, whether they’re ingested or rubbed on the skin—really work? There’s no doubt foods rich in antioxidants typically have excellent nutritional value and health benefits. But whether or not they can stave off the inevitable hasn’t been proven.
“They are good for you, but I don’t think we have any information that says they can slow down the aging process,” says Dr. Arlan Richardson, director of the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
“From the research, we’re just not in a place yet to make any specific recommendations as far as phytochemicals [antioxidants],” explains Judy Matusky, who is a registered dietitian at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
If that’s the case, then why is it that so many promises of youth surround antioxidants? This comes from a credible theory that oxidation is one of the key reasons for cell aging. Thus, it also plays a role in the body’s aging process—though it’s not wholly responsible for it.
According to a 2008 study by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), no one theory can explain why humans age. Most scientists agree that multiple factors come into play, including some that make sense to the typical layperson (genetics, cell wear and tear) and some that are more heavily science-based (the accumulation of cross-linked cells over time; endocrines and how they control aging). But according to the NIA, the theory that has inspired the marketing frenzy surrounding antioxidants holds that “accumulated damage caused by oxygen radicals causes cells, and eventually organs, to stop functioning.”
When it comes to understanding oxidation, “too much rust” may be the best analogy. “It builds up in the cells and causes problems for the individual,” Richardson says.
Ironically, the thing that sustains life—oxygen—also contributes significantly to our destruction. Here’s how it works: Within a cell, microscopic organelles called mitochondria process oxygen. As the NIA points out, “Mitochondria convert oxygen and food into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy-releasing molecule that powers most cellular processes. In essence, mitochondria are furnaces, and like all furnaces, they produce potentially harmful byproducts. In cells, these byproducts are called oxygen-free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species.”
Free radicals, which are also produced by the known aging agents tobacco and sunlight, go on to damage a cell membrane’s proteins and DNA. This not only contributes to aging but has also been linked to cancer, atherosclerosis, cataracts and neurodegeneration.
Complicating matters is the fact that the free radicals also have benefits. The immune and nervous systems both need them to operate. (Think of it along the lines of CO2—bad for the planet in large quantities, but still vital for life.)
Nevertheless, the body does need to defend itself against the damage caused by free radicals. And it uses—what else?—antioxidants to do so.
So what are antioxidants? Well, they are substances found naturally in many forms of food, which help mitigate free- radical damage. Some more common antioxidants include beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins C, E and A.
And while there’s a scientific basis for the notion of antioxidants as anti-aging, Richardson cautions, “When specific antioxidants have been tested, they haven’t been effective.”
Why not? No one really knows as yet.
That being the case, antioxidants shouldn’t be viewed as some kind of magic remedy to halt the aging process. Nonetheless, they do have health benefits. “Certainly, taking some won’t hurt you and might help, depending on your body,” says Richardson.
According to most physicians and the NIA, eating foods naturally rich in antioxidants is the best way to obtain any potential benefits. And there is some evidence that degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s might be held at bay with the proper diet.
There are theories as to why increased quantities of antioxidants don’t seem to have an effect on the aging process.
“It may be that the antioxidants are not getting through to the cells,” says Richardson.
Researchers are working on ways to make antioxidants a useful weapon against aging, but we’re not there yet. How the body obtains and uses antioxidants—and how someone can maximize their benefits—is far from clear.
“I’d say, in about five years, we might have a pill that might work in animal studies,” Richardson says.
He adds that the only proven method of staving off aging is caloric restriction—something we already know is healthy. “Eat right and exercise,” he says.
Matusky agrees, citing study after study that indicates above-normal weight is a key factor in many diseases associated with aging. What’s more, it aggravates the normal stresses on the body associated with aging.
“One of the best things we can do is maintain a healthy weight,” she says.
Studies have examined populations that live longer and age better. “In groups that have the highest intakes of plant foods, whole grains and legumes, those seem to be the individuals that have the lowest incidence of chronic diseases,” says Matusky.
Obviously, consumers should be wary of claims that antioxidants can miraculously cure or prevent cancer, prevent or diminish wrinkles, or impede aging. While some research shows that certain antioxidants might help under particular circumstances in any one of these areas, the science is far from certain—and genetics and other factors always contribute to the progression of diseases and aging. On the other hand, a healthy diet is made up of foods that are often rich in antioxidants.
As for wrinkle creams that contain antioxidants, there’s no proof they work, either. In the end, there’s still little evidence to support the efficacy of supplements, artificially enriched food or even topical lotions—although they likely can’t hurt anything, except maybe your pocketbook in some cases.
To paraphrase Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, consumers should keep in mind that the healthiest foods reside unassumingly in the supermarket produce section, while nearby, artificially enriched, processed and overly sugared foods often bear fancy labels touting the benefits of relatively small amounts of antioxidants.
• Vitamin C Citrus fruit and juices (oranges, tangerines, grapefruit), berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries), dark-green vegetables (spinach, asparagus, green peppers, brussels sprouts, broccoli, watercress), red and yellow peppers, tomatoes and tomato juice, pineapple, cantaloupe, mangos, papaya, and guava.
• Vitamin E Vegetable oils (olive, soybean, corn, cottonseed, safflower), nuts and nut butters, seeds, whole grains, wheat, wheat germ, brown rice, oatmeal, soybeans, sweet potatoes, legumes (beans, lentils, split peas), and leafy, dark-green vegetables.
• Selenium Brazil nuts, brewer’s yeast, oatmeal, brown rice, chicken, eggs, dairy products, garlic, molasses, onions, salmon, seafood, tuna, wheat germ, whole grains and most vegetables.
• Beta-carotene A variety of dark-orange, red, yellow and green vegetables and fruits, including broccoli, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, red and yellow peppers, apricots, cantaloupe, and mangos.